18 November 2011

Movies: 13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1436045/

Foreign film - Action Drama

Set in 1840's Japan.  The current Shogun's half-brother, Naritsugu, rapes and kills at his whim. As the son of the previous Shogun he is above the law. He is in consideration to be included in the council of advisers to the Shogun ruling Japan. After one of the top officials commits seppuku (aka harakiri) because he can no longer honorably both support his Shogun and turn a blind eye to Naritsugu's evil doings, senior government official Doi feels Naritsugu's actions are too outrageous and dangerous for the health of the country.  He calls upon other Samurai he knows feel the same way and asks them to form an assassination squad to take out Naritsugu. They know it is a suicide mission, but feel the health of the country outweighs the value of their lives and their loyalty to the Shogun.  After assembling a team of 12 Samurai and Ronin (masterless Samurai) they buy a town from its residents and set up a trap for Naritsugu to ambush him while he travels from Edo back to his home.

"13 Assassins" is a remake of an original 1963 film. I've not seen the original so I can't make comparisons between the two.  However this film reminds me in many ways of the 1954 classic "Seven Samurai" by Akira Kurosawa, a man considered one of the best directors of all time. If you've not seen "Seven Samurai" but have seen "The Magnificent Seven" then you could draw that same comparison because "Magnificent Seven" is a remake of  "Seven Samurai".
The point I was getting to was both films feature a small group knowingly throwing themselves against impossible odds in a suicidal attempt to right wrongs for the greater good of the common people.

It is hinted that "13 Assassins" has some historical basis. The Sakuradamon incident was suggested as the inspiration for the story. However the details of the incidents are quite different, about the only similarity is a government official being ambushed by samurai and ronin because of their displeasure with the direction the country was taking.  If you read up on the Sakuradamon incident before viewing the film your expectations for the story might be a bit off. Reading afterward is okay, you'll spot the similarities and differences immediately.

The American/International release version is about two hours long, which is cut down 20 minutes from the original release. The film is subtitled, not dubbed. Apparently some of the cuts involve supernatural goings-on that might be lost on western viewers that are not familiar with Japanese folklore. *

It takes about one hour and fifteen minutes of preparation before the actual attack begins.  As with many other aspects of the film this parallels the pacing and layout of "Seven Samurai".  When that attack began I forgot all about how long it seemed to actually get to that point in the film. When the opening attacks began I was so instantly awestruck I said, "Holy shit" out loud, and the remainder of the film flew by in a flurry of activity. Even as the film wound down into its parting scenes it was so worth the trip getting there.

Even if you don't like subtitled films, this one is worth watching. Especially for the battle scenes. Heck, "Seven Samurai" is worth watching even though it's subtitled. The power of the story and the action scenes trump any discomfort of having to read the translations.

I've heard some folks state they enjoyed this film more than "Seven Samurai". I can't argue that people's likes or dislikes are wrong, it's their opinion based on their esthetic preferences. But I would put forward that "13 Assassins" is only as good a movie as it is because "Seven Samurai" exists. The parallels between the two films are strong and obvious.
A lot of really good films are as good as they are because their directors studied Akira Kurosawa's film style, camera work and directorial technique (coughStarWarscough). Sure, the battle scenes and effects used in "13 Assassins" are more polished than films from the 50's. However the characterization and dialog in "13 Assassins" isn't quite as effective nor as polished as its "Seven Samurai" predecessor. Plus. in cases where a modern film is as good as a film that predates it by 60 or 70 years, I tend to give the nod to the older film because it came first and established the bar other films are measured against.  We can't view the modern films in a vacuum that excludes the influences of filmmakers past because nobody makes films in a vacuum that excludes the influences of filmmakers past. It would be interesting to see a feature length film made by someone who has never watched movies, television nor staged productions prior to making the film. I know there's plenty of crap out there that looks like whoever made it hasn't watched a film before, but I doubt that's the case.

Crap, I sortof wandered way off topic there at the end.

See it. It's good. 
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* Note: The following is somewhat spoilery so I set it at the end to give you a chance to not read it if you wish to avoid having part of the ending spoiled.
One of the survivors of the battle, the hunter Koyata, the dude the 12 picked up when they were lost in the forest, is actually a forest spirit and thus immortal. That is why he is barely harmed at the end despite obviously mortal wounds during the battle.
The only reason I know that is because I read it. I know nothing about Japanese folklore so that part of the story was lost on me and left me a little confused because I had no basis to catch the contextual hints.  I'm sure I'm not alone when it comes to that.

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